Every year at Christmas I play a little game with myself where I try to imagine what my dad was thinking while purchasing my present.
One year my present was a book about caring for your saltwater aquarium. I didn’t have any aquariums. When I offered this information to my dad, he looked surprised, took the book in his hands, stared at it and said something along the lines of, “huh.” I tried entering his mind for this one but couldn’t come up with much.
Another year I got this book…
I remember our brief discussion post-unwrapping…
Dad: “Have you read anything by him?”
Me: “No, I haven’t.”
Dad: “Yeah, I haven’t either.”
Aside from feeling fairly certain he got a pretty good deal on this book (Jordan being long retired from the game and all), I, again, came up empty as to his thoughts leading up to this purchase.
The thing that’s weird about it though is that my dad is an extremely “with it” guy. He’s always seemed considerably younger than his age. He’s thoughtful, sensitive, generous, loving. All the good things. But something comes over him at Christmas time. And I think I now know what it is. My dad spoiled the hell out of me as a kid and now he wants me to pay for it.
First, some background. Christmas was an epic event throughout my childhood. Partly because each year, thanks to my parents’ early divorce, I had two of them. My dad, in particular, used Christmas as an opportunity to assuage his guilt. What followed, the early eighties (my formative years), were Christmases that actually allowed me to feel bad for my friends whose parents opted to stay together. For instance, in 1983 I got a three-foot, all-metal Voltron robot that shot missiles out of its knees.
Christmas 1994 I received my first unwearable Van Huesen button down shirt. It would mark what would later become known as “the Van Huesen Years”. My dad, it was clear, had said, “enough of this bullshit”. He declared his dues paid and his decade-long guilt trip traveled. Do I know what exactly prompted this rather sudden turnaround? No, not really. Do I wish his guilt had lingered a few more years so I would’ve gotten better presents? Sure. But I’m also sort of happy my dad has reached a place of such acceptance that he can now hand me a wrapped box with a Jerzees-brand black long-sleeve t-shirt ($6.99-$9.99 at Target) inside it and, with a straight face, say, “Merry Christmas, Sonny”.
Part of my own acceptance of this crap-ass Christmas comes from age I suppose. I’m getting close to 40 years old. I’m a father myself now. At some point a man needs to stop complaining about what his parents got him for Christmas. But when is that point exactly?
One way to make the transition easier I’ve found is to be bitter about what your parents got your kids. After all, it’s not about you anymore.
Louisa, my daughter, is four. Her best buddies, her cousins, Ani and Elsa (twins), are roughly the same age. They had the pleasure of spending an early Christmas together at Pa’s (my dad) house.
Here are the twins showing off their presents from Pa …
Here’s Louisa modeling her outfit from Pa…
I tried entering my dad’s head once again for the purchase of this little number…
“Ok, let’s see, Ani and Elsa are little girls, they’ll probably like dressing up as princesses. And, let’s see, Louisa’s a lesbian so…”
Maybe the twins living in Manhattan and Louisa living in New Jersey factored in? I don’t know. But it leads me to this morning, Louisa’s second day back after the holiday break. Here’s how our conversation went:
“Daddy, where’s the outfit Pa got me for Christmas?”
“I don’t know, honey.”
“I want to wear it.”
In the wake of this –Louisa’s white trash Jersey mall “My First Lesbian” outfit and my $6.99 Jerseez long sleeve T—I started to wonder: At what point does one stop going “home” for Christmas? At what point do you branch off and start your own little family tradition? Is it when your parents fail to break the $10 mark on your present? No. You’re a grown-up now, it’s not really about the presents anymore. It’s about family, getting all the little cousins together. So the three 4 year-old girls can play the “butt butt” game (rules of which are unprintable, possibly unspeakable) in the bath? So the three girls (along with their 5 year-old cousin) can coax each other into taking turns sticking their heads in the toilet to drink the water?
(sadly, I didn’t have my phone ready to record the sight I walked in on but I managed to get some of the aftermath (and scold them very convincingly…
The family quality time argument falls apart again when you consider the older cousins, the teenage boys, who, if left up to their own devices (and were) would spend 96 straight hours playing Xbox. Maybe it was nice for them to have their cousins sitting next to them as they stared at the screen and grew festering bedsores on their asses. I suppose I’m not one to judge.
Or maybe you decide to switch things up when you find yourself rummaging through your old bedroom closet looking for the porno mags you stashed there in ninth grade. As your children and wife lay sleeping in the bed next to you.
Or maybe it’s when you find yourself sitting in your mother’s psycho-therapy office, lavender candles burning, eyes closed, doing “imagery” work based on the unhappiness you’ve been told your unrealistic expectations of life have caused you?
It’s hard to say.
But it might just take care of itself. We might just not be invited back. Certainly our dogs won’t be. And I could definitely imagine the rest of the extended family asking that we find a babysitter to stay with Louisa while the rest of us make the trek down to DC. She was, in fact, deemed “the bad influence”. At the start of the week, parents were gracious: “No, no, Ani was just as responsible as Louisa…No, no, Elsa would’ve done the same thing…” By the end of week it was more like, “Is there some kind of Hannibal Lecter type apparatus we could put Louisa in for the remainder of the vacation?”
My sister and her family broke off from the pack two Christmases ago. They now do their Christmases alone up in their country house in Connecticut. It’s a pretty idyllic Christmas spot. In the ‘slash and burn’ style in which my little family seems to move through life (town after town, rental after rental with ‘burn’ being quite literal at one particular stop), I’m going to suggest we do Christmas at Ann’s country house next year. My dad will have no trouble finding a Target en route and my mom can perform her therapy miracles in one of several lovely sunrooms there. And maybe we could let Louisa out and let her find a good pack of wolves to run with around those parts. If not, at the very least, I’m sure the toilets up there have much fresher drinking water.